Off the eaten track in San Juan

A foodie trip to Puerto Rico might evoke images of traditional island fare: red beans and white rice, lechón a roasted suckling pig – or even the island’s ubiquitous signature dish mofongo, made with garlicky smashed green plantains stuffed with meat or vegetables. Do a little searching, though, and you’ll find that clandestine culinary secrets ripple just beneath the surface.

People dine in Old San Juan © Franz Marc Frei / LOOK-foto / Getty ImagesPeople dine in Old San Juan © Franz Marc Frei / LOOK-foto / Getty Images

Puerto Rican food is a varied mix thanks to its multicultural past. Influences from the peaceful hunter-gatherer Taínos manifest in the uses of cassava, ñame, yuca and other root vegetables, as well as the tradition of mashing corn, spices, medicinal herbs and other assorted ingredients with a maceta y pilón (mortar and pestle). West African culture also played a key role in shaping the island’s foodscape by introducing frying as a cooking method. Spaniards brought livestock and a couple of other items you might not expect mango and plantain. These fruits weren’t indigenous to the island, but are now an iconic part of it.

Below, we’ve listed some of the best foodie secrets in San Juan: hit the town with an empty belly and an appetite for exploration, and you’re sure to find something delicious.

Señor Paleta

Tucked away in the southern section of Old San Juan, this tiny mom-and-pop shop would be easy to miss if it weren’t for the line of eager folks snaking around the block, happily waiting their turn to indulge in some of the tastiest and coldest treats this little islet has to offer: handcrafted paletas (www.facebook.com/srpaletaoldsanjuan).

Paleterias, or ice-pop stands, are a growing culinary trend across the US and in several parts of Latin America. Shop owners Ramon and Jennifer craft refreshing natural popsicles in a variety of both milk and fruit-based flavors. Nutella? Got it. Cookies and Cream? Sure. But you might want to hold out for their best-seller, strawberry mojito. The shop stands apart thanks to its emphasis on using fresh fruit and high quality ingredients many of their products are sourced locally, and they offer the only farm-to-table paletas in town.

Snag a cold, sweet treat at Senor Paleta © Senor PaletaSnag a cold, sweet treat at Señor Paleta © Señor Paleta

Cuatro Sombras

Coffee first arrived Puerto Rico in 1736, soon becoming one of the dominant cash crops on the island; today, Puerto Rican coffee is known for its high quality and its strong, but not bitter flavor. Old San Juan is chock-a-block with several coffee spots, but Cuatro Sombras stands apart not only for its quality, locally grown beans, but because they are the only coffee shop in Old San Juan that roasts its own coffee fresh, right there on site. Cuatro Sombras is the “shop face” of the owner’s family coffee plantation, Hacienda Santa Clara, founded in 1846 and located in the mountains of Yauco.

These beans are single origin, which means they come from a single location and are not mixed with any other beans from other farms or even other countries. When you visit Cuatro Sombras, be sure to ask for the local’s drink, the cortadito. Think of it as the Puerto Rican version of the macchiato.

Princesa Gastrobar

Princesa Gastrobar (princesapr.com) is nestled in a beautiful garden patio at the edge of the famous city wall that historically encompassed all of Old San Juan. Founded in 2015, owner Jose Daniel and head chef Luis Freire were inspired by a historic cookbook that featured recipes dating as far back as 1859 the two decided to create a unique menu that blends Spanish and Puerto Rican dishes to make what they call ‘island cuisine’. These recipes are indicated on their menu with a local tree frog called a coqui.

Croquettes from Princesa Gastrobar © Taste of San JuanCroquettes from Princesa Gastrobar © Flavors of San Juan

The restaurant’s specialty is a Spanish staple: croquettes. These heavenly bites are made with chicken and Iberian ham and served over béchamel sauce  they require four days of prep and more than twenty ingredients. Fun fact: the recipe dates back 300 years to the kitchens of El Botín Restaurant in Spain, where Chef Luis completed his training.

La Alcapurria Quemá

Head to La Alcapurria Quemá for a big dose of local Caribbean charm (facebook.com/laalcapurriaquema); located in a foodie spot known as La Placita, the restaurant is close to Ocean Park and Condado in an urban area known as Santurce. La Placita technically refers to the local market, the oldest operating farmers market in San Juan (dating back to the 1850s), but the surrounding area includes a number of bars and restaurants. For many years, this plaza has attracted locals who come for a long Friday lunch that often extends into the evening it’s a great place to dance to live music into the wee hours of the morning.

A tasty alcapurria © Taste of San JuanA tasty alcapurria from La Alcapurria Quemá © Flavors of San Juan

The restaurant’s menu changes on a daily basis, but some staples are always present; be sure to try their namesake alcapurria, a type of Puerto Rican fritter. These delectable dishes are usually made with a batter of local root vegetable yautia (taro) and guineos verdes (green bananas), then stuffed with crab, lobster, shrimp, ground meat filling or vegetables. Top it off with local piqué, a Puerto Rican hot sauce, but proceed with caution some piqués are on the mild side, while others set your mouth on fire.

Tresbé

If you’re looking for a dose of off-the-beaten path charm, Tresbé is the place to go (facebook.com/tresbecafe). It’s unusual name stands for three Bs – bueno, bonito and barato – translating to ‘good, pretty and affordable’ in English.

Tresbé is located off San Juan’s newly trending foodie street, Calle Loíza, which is holding tight to its reputation as a great place to find a variety of local, creative and delicious cuisines in a true urban ambiance. Another plus: the restaurant has parking next door, a rarity in that part of town.

The heart of the Urals: exploring Yekaterinburg

Russia’s fourth-largest city doesn’t overstate its importance with glitz and glamour. Yekaterinburg, instead, sits back and lets its pedigree reel you in. Savvy businesspeople and investors have been coming here for a long time, but as of late holidaymakers are stopping by too, often to break up their Trans-Siberian journey and explore the Ural Mountains. Those wise enough to stay for a few days will discover a vibrant city with energy to match, and a nature playground a hop and a skip away.

Named after Peter the Great’s wife Catherine, the capital of the Ural region lies on the border of Europe and Asia and has long been a prosperous city. Yekaterinburg played a major role in trade between the east and west throughout the 1700s and 1800s, increasing its status and wealth; more recently, mining and industrial work has propelled the city into the limelight. And it keeps reaching for the stars: Yekaterinburg is one of the host cities for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and the Russian government has injected billions of roubles to improve its infrastructure in preparation for the big event (including the upgrade of the Central Stadium and the construction of new metro stations).

Yekaterinburg's modern skyline and City Pond © Valeri Potapova / ShutterstockYekaterinburg’s modern skyline and City Pond © Valeri Potapova / Shutterstock

City life

Although Yekaterinburg is spread out, most of the highlights are located in the historic centre. English-language guided walking tours aren’t mainstream yet, but in 2010 local blogger Dmitry Kalaev asked his followers to vote for Yekaterinburg’s most interesting sites, which resulted in the development of a 6.5km Red Line trail (ekbredline.ru) in 2011.

Starting at Ploshchad 1905 Goda, the main square in town, the walking route passes by 35 attractions as voted by thousands of residents, including beautiful old merchant houses, Russian Orthodox churches (Church upon the Blood is the city’s biggest cathedral, built on the Romanov death site), the first school, the first theatre, the oldest house, the peculiar QWERTY monument, street art, museums and more.

The Monument to Komsomol of Ural facing the Church upon the Blood © Mikhail Markovskiy / ShutterstockThe Monument to Komsomol of Ural facing the Church upon the Blood © Mikhail Markovskiy / Shutterstock

Yekaterinburg’s latest museum isn’t on the route but if voting were to happen again, residents may advocate it be included. Opened in 2015, the Boris Yeltsin Museum (yeltsin.ru) is part of the swish Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center, with quite the impressive (and somewhat unusual) collection of exhibits. There are replica rooms, video clips, sound and lighting effects and plenty of immersive displays spread out across nine rooms. If learning about Russia’s first president isn’t high on your list, head to Russia’s tallest skyscraper outside Moscow for a different perspective. The 188m-tall Vysotsky Tower has unrivalled city views from the 54th floor, and sunsets from here on a clear day are very Instagramable.

Sightseeing will, no doubt, whet your appetite and there’s plenty on offer in the culinary stakes. Russian favourites – such as borsch (beetroot soup) and pelmeni (ravioli dumplings) – are easy to find, with ample restaurants offering a Ural take on the well-loved dishes (try reindeer meat). Pozharka and Dacha are both good restaurant choices. International cuisine is popular too, with everything from Japanese and Chinese to Uzbek and Georgian easy to find.

The secluded Ruskie Bani in Yekaterinburg © Evan Dickson / Lonely PlanetThe secluded Ruskie Bani in Yekaterinburg © Evan Dickson / Lonely Planet

The Russian banya

One of the top things to do in Yekaterinburg – and all of Russia, actually – is get piping hot, then get whipped and drenched in cold water (or better still, roll around in the snow). Welcome to the Russian banya!

No bathhouse experience is as talked about as the Russian bath. If you can swing it, your best bet is to get yourself an invite to a resident’s banya, as there’s nothing quite like the real deal. Your second best option is to book a banya session at one of the many complexes around town, where experiences range from simple home-style bathing practices to out-of-this-world extravaganzas.

Entrance to Chapaevskiye Bani © Evan Dickson / Lonely PlanetEntrance to Chapaevskiye Bani © Evan Dickson / Lonely Planet

Ruskie Bani (bani66.ru) was one of the first public banyas to open in Yekaterinburg in 2002. Here guests can choose to relax in traditional-style wooden banyas or splurge in contemporary fit-outs with fancy showers and Jacuzzis. Pelmeni and other Russian food can be ordered, and staff members are on hand to offer a variety of treatments including massages, steaming sessions, herbal-infusion soakings and… beatings. Visitors can choose from birch, oak, juniper, eucalyptus or fir brooms for the only-in-Russia experience.

Chapaevskiye Bani (m.chapaev-bani.ru) offers a slightly more luxurious option, and guests can stay at the Palais Royal next door if they want a multi-day banya indulgence.

The chapel at Ganina Yama outside Yekaterinburg © oneinchpunch / ShutterstockThe chapel at Ganina Yama outside Yekaterinburg © oneinchpunch / Shutterstock

Out of town

Yekaterinburg is perhaps most famous for the Romanov family tragedy. On 16 July 1918, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their five children and four of their employees were assassinated by Bolshevik troops in the Ipatyev house basement, where the Church upon the Blood now stands. The cremated remains were discarded in a mine pit about 15km out of town, the site now known as Ganina Yama. Today there’s a monastery made up of seven wooden chapels (one in honour of each of the murdered family members) on the site, called Monastery of the Holy Martyrs – a somber reminder of the devastation that took place a century ago.

For something a little less morose, day trips to national parks offer visitors the chance to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Olenyi Ruchyi (Deer Springs; olen.ur.ru), about 90-minutes’ drive from Yekaterinburg, has some fantastic hiking trails that traverse birch forest and lichen-steeped caves. Bachovskie Mesta (бм-парк.рф), less than an hour’s drive from the city centre, is a scenic vastness of pine and birch grove forests, meandering rivers and small calm lakes. Russians come here to hike, horse ride, cycle and drive snowmobiles in winter.

The pristine Deer Springs national park © Ilyshev Dmitry / ShutterstockThe pristine Deer Springs national park © Ilyshev Dmitry / Shutterstock

There are plenty of other nature parks nearby, too – after all, Yekaterinburg is located in the heart of the lustrous Ural Mountains. You just need a sense of adventure and a Russian dictionary or a guide, as beyond the main cities (and often even in cities) Russian is the only language spoken. Of course, if you’re travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway you’ll no doubt get some Russian language practice anyway – whether you want to or not.

Make it happen

Yekaterinburg is one of the biggest cities on the Trans-Siberian route and a popular spot for those looking to break up the long journey; Koltsovo International Airport services plenty of domestic and international flights.

Discovering Uzbekistan: At the centre of the Silk Road

Even more than the Roman Empire, the Silk Road shaped the world we know today. Weaving from Europe to Asia, Russia to the Indian Subcontinent, and everywhere in between, it was along this network of ancient trading routes that people, ideas, inventions, and goods made their way.

At the centre of the Silk Road, and waiting to be discovered, is Uzbekistan. From April 2017, British passport holders (and nationals of more than a dozen other countries) will no longer need a tourist visa: you’ll pay a flat fee of US$50 on arrival, and be able to stay for up to 30 days. When you combine this change with the fact that Uzbekistan Airways also flies directly from London to Tashkent, it’s never been easier, or cheaper, to go.

What are the attractions which make Uzbekistan a must-visit destination? As the author of the Bradt Guide to Uzbekistan, I’ve been fortunate enough to explore almost every corner of the country. Here are my recommendations of what to see, do, and experience in Uzbekistan.

The Silk Road Cities

City gates of the Ichan Qala in Khiva, Uzbekistan
City gates of the Ichan Qala in Khiva (c) Sophie Ibbotson

First and foremost are the great Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva, which have been inspiring visitors with their architectural masterpieces for centuries. All UNESCO World Heritage Sites, these cities are bejewelled with majolica tiles, stained glass, gilded ceilings, and exquisite paintings and carvings.

Samarkand

Registan square in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Registan square (c) Ekrem Canli

In Samarkand, tourists typically head straight for the Registan Square, which is comprised of three madrassahs (Islamic schools), the earliest of which dates from the 15th century. Each of the structures is highly ornamented, and the facade of the Sher For madrassah depicts strange tigers with human faces upon their backs: they are grotesque and beautiful in equal measure, and clearly challenge the orthodox Islamic view that living creatures should not be depicted in art.

My favourite site in Samarkand, however, is a 10 minute walk away. It’s called the Shah-i Zinda, and it is an extraordinary necropolis of decorated tombs, some of which are more than 1,000 years old. Each of the mausoleums in the complex is unique and beautiful, and together they will take your breath away.

Termez: off the beaten track

Fayoz Tepe, Termez, Uzbekistan
Fayoz Tepe, Termez (c) Arian Zwegers

I like to get beyond the beaten track, however, and so it’s necessary to leave the charms of the cities behind and head out into the hinterland. Tourists rarely travel as far south as Termez, but as a result, they miss out: this was one of the great Graeco-Bactrian cities at the time of Alexander the Great, and the archaeological discoveries made here are eye-opening.

The most important finds (and well-done displays explaining where they came from) are in Termez Archaeological Museum, but it is well worth visiting the open air excavations, too. In my view, the most impressive of these is at Kampir Tepe, where you can still walk what remains of the city walls, follow the streets, and enter into homes and shops, even though the last residents left two millennia ago.

Savitsky Collection in Nukus

Nukus Art Museum, Uzbekistan
Nukus Art Museum (The State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan) (c) ChanOJ

Uzbekistan’s history is rich, without doubt, but there’s also a lot to be said for exploring its more contemporary culture. The Savitsky Collection in Nukus (also known as Nukus Art Museum or The State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan), in the northwestern part of Uzbekistan, has one of the most important collection of avant garde art in the world, and the story of how the collection was amassed and protected is the subject of the documentary Desert of Forbidden Art. The museum is undergoing an aggressive expansion programme, so more and more works of art will be put on display throughout the year.

Head to the capital, Tashkent

Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin, Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin, Tashkent (c) ГОЛ ос

Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, is a regional hub of culture, too. The glorious Navoi Opera and Ballet Theatre has recently reopened after major renovations, and the affordable tickets offer a chance to see world-class classical performances in a remarkable setting.

There are a large number of museums in the city, of which the Uzbekistan State Museum of Applied Art and the Fine Arts Museum of Uzbekistan are particularly worth exploring.

Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent (c) Eric Haglund

Make sure you also have time to people watch and shop at Chorsu Bazaar — the modern manifestation of the Silk Road markets of the past — and, funny as it may sound, take a ride on the Tashkent Metro, the stations of which are decorated with carved alabaster, mosaics, chandeliers, engraved metalwork, and more.

Uzbek Food

Plov, Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Plov (c) Ekrem Canli

And then there is the food! Uzbek food is little known outside of Uzbekistan (with the notable exception of Samarkand in London, tipped to become the world’s first Michelin-starred Uzbek restaurant), but even the smell of the grilled meats, soups, and plov (the local variant of pilau, or biryani) will have your mouth watering. Uzbekistan is a major producer of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as nuts, so you can expect to spend a lot of your visit snacking on healthy treats.

Uzbekistan: an up and coming destination


Uzbek family outside the Bibi Khanym mosque in Samarkand (c) Sophie Ibbotson

Uzbekistan ticks all the boxes for an exciting, up and coming destination. The country is developing rapidly, and particularly if you travel out of high season, it’s relatively easy to stay away from other tourists and surround yourself with authentic experiences and warm local hospitality. The Uzbeks have been welcoming travellers for thousands of years, and if you are lucky, you’ll soon be among their honoured guests.

10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Travelling to Ho Chi Minh City

It is fun, chaotic, noisy, part modern, part traditional, and a bit intimidating but most of all Ho Chi Minh City in Southeast Asia, is  charming.

But, it is also eccentric. Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City are different names for the same city.

I was there for three days and managed to visit the War Remnants Museum, Reunifications Palace, Saigon Central Post Office, and the Notre Dame Cathedral. And it was a joy just to soak in the atmosphere and stuff myself with delicious Vietnamese food.

It was a great experience but I experienced minor setbacks. The mishaps certainly did not stop me from having a good time but they could have been easily prevented with careful planning. And there are things that I missed or almost missed out on either due to lack of time and preparation.

Here are the 10 things I wish I knew before travelling to Ho Chi Minh City.

1Flooding


Ho Chi Minh City is not immune to flooding. I went to Saigon in June, during the rainy season, and although it only rained once during my stay, the downpour was heavy enough to cause a bit of flooding. Luckily, a mall was nearby so I stayed there until the rain stopped and the floodwaters subsided.

2Transportation


It is easy to blow your budget on transportation costs. I made the mistake of hiring a cyclo (a three-wheel bicycle taxi), and was charged 300,000 VND for my city tour.  I was not scammed because I agreed on the price but we only went to 4 sights, which were fairly close to one another. Walking or taking a taxi would have been a better alternative.

3Currency confusion


The currency in Vietnam is the dong. However different Vietnamese dong notes look similar and one can easily get confused. I was giving a tip to a massage therapist and was meant to give her 60,000 VND but handed her 540,000 VND instead. The girl realized my mistake and handed me back the 500,000 note, which I promptly replaced with a 20,000 note after thanking her profusely.

4Taxi scams exist

A taxi from Tan Son Nhat International Airport to the backpackers’ area in District 1 costs around 6 to 10 USD but I paid 20 USD.  The meter was on but I believe the driver took the longer route. It wasn’t until I chatted with my hostel’s receptionist when I realized that I’d been ripped off.

Top Tip: Only take Mailinh and Vinasun taxi when in Saigon.

5Vendors can be aggressive

I shopped for souvenirs at the Ben Thanh day and night markets and I noticed that vendors are pushy, rude, impatient, and even aggressive. If you are not interested in what they are selling, it is best to take a deep breath and just ignore them.

6Not all hotels have lifts

When booking a room in Ho Chi Minh City, always ask if there’s a lift available. If there’s none, ask for a room on one of the lower floors to save yourself from having to carry your bags up several narrow flights of stairs.

7Massages and pedicures are super cheap in Saigon

During my last night in Saigon, I was walking around Bui Vien Street when a young woman handed me a calling card and told me to visit their spa if I wanted to have a massage or a pedicure. I paid less than 10 USD for a full body massage and a pedicure in a clean and well-appointed environment.

8Vietnamese iced coffee is really good


Never leave Saigon without trying caphesua da or Vietnamese iced coffee. I ordered a glass at a roadside eatery and it proved to be sweet, refreshing, and definitely a highlight.

9There’s life beyond Districts 1 and 3

It would have been great to spend an hour or two in Chinatown in District 5, or have dinner at a riverside restaurant in District 7.

10Three days is not long enough when visiting Ho Chi Minh City

As my time in Saigon was limited, I skipped the Mekong Delta or the Cu Chi Tunnels Tour. Shame.

Dreamy Malibu Cottage-Style Beach Front Suite

Malibu beach-front suite - interior
Malibu beach-front suite – interior (c) Sharron Livingston

Romantic getaway on the sea front with magical sweeping views over the Pacific ocean.

All state of the art of appliances with hardwood flooring (suite A) and stone floor (suite B) throughout. Ocean views from the bed, king size bed (suite A) and queen size bed (suite B). Natural gas burning fireplace on patio along with a BBQ, perfect place for relaxing and entertaining.

You will love the spectacular sunsets. Perfect location within the first mile of Malibu, border of Santa Monica and Malibu, only ten minutes away from Ocean Ave.

Email Alfredo Hernandez

Malibu beach-front suite - terrace
Malibu beach-front suite – terrace (c) Sharron Livingston
Malibu beach-front suite - sunset

Naadam Festival by Nomads

Naadam Festival by Nomads

Soldiers on horseback, dressed in Chinggis Khan Warrior’s regalia, formally receive the nine white horsetail banners at the Parliament House where they are normally displayed.

Then they will ride in procession through the city to later place the banners in the center of the National Stadium, from here you will be viewing the Opening Ceremony.

At the Stadium, an unique opening ceremony is held including thousands of adults and children dressed in costumes representing Mongolia’s numerous ethnic groups.